Many chefs’ earliest associations with food might include fond memories of cooking alongside a family member, tasting a favorite flavor for the first time, or a holiday feast. For author and chef Mee Tracy McCormick, it’s more complicated. “I have a sordid past with food,” she says.
Growing up poor in the northern Appalachians, McCormick doesn’t so much remember eating as she does “being very hungry.” Food, she recalls, was “fish sticks and food stamps.”
But McCormick’s long journey has taken her from scarcity to abundance. In addition to running Pinewood Kitchen, the farm-to-table Nashville-area restaurant, she’s the author of two recipe books. McCormick self-published My Kitchen Cure in 2013, and her new book, My Pinewood Kitchen, a Southern Culinary Cure: 100+ Crazy Delicious, Gluten-Free Recipes to Reduce Inflammation and Make Your Gut Happy, will be published by Health Communications (newly partnered for distribution with Simon & Schuster) in April.
McCormick was raised by her single mother, who suffered from Crohn’s disease and died from the condition when McCormick was 18, and her grandmother. Though they may not have passed along cherished family recipes, they left her with something perhaps more valuable: a work ethic, creative innovation, and the ability to stretch a dollar.
Following her mother’s death, McCormick determined that she wanted more for herself than the life she had grown up with and set out to fulfill that promise to herself. While working in restaurants as a server and bartender, she also made it a priority to go to college and to travel. The time she spent in places like Israel led to her burgeoning appreciation of world cuisine. Ironically, though, it wasn’t until health problems started affecting her eating that she discovered a love for cooking herself.
After having her second child in her early 30s, in 2006, McCormick began suffering extreme abdominal pain and couldn’t eat: “I was 89 pounds; I was starving to death,” she says. Her symptoms were reminiscent of her mother’s—and her hunger recalled her own childhood spent wondering where her next meal would come from. Most cruelly, she now had the resources to eat well. “When you have access to food and enough money to purchase it, it’s incredibly painful,” she says.
After being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, McCormick reached out to experts in prebiotic and probiotic foods and slow cooking. She enrolled in cooking classes, learning to craft staples like miso soup and studying spices and herbs alongside a group of female chefs. As she fought to regain her health and learn to eat again, she had a reckoning of sorts: “I was really lonely. I began to think about the future of food and about individuality.”
McCormick began experimenting with recipes, swapping out ingredients and rediscovering some of the foods that she had previously enjoyed, including Fry Pies—handmade pies stuffed with fresh fruit—and staples like mac and cheese. She enrolled in culinary school. “I really wanted to understand what it is that we crave,” she says.
But while other students would rely on their taste buds as a guide, McCormick says, “I couldn’t taste a lot of things,” because of her health conditions. After class was over, she would recreate the meals she’d been assigned, making dairy, gluten, and soy-free versions. “I went from eating mush to eating coq au vin,” she recalls. “I felt I had to tell everyone about the world of whole food.”
McCormick also thought back to some of the Southern foods she had known as a child. “I started taking the poorest food and twisting it to be gut healthy. I was creating my own kind of cooking,” she says. Though she had never thought about writing a book, her desire to share her recipes with others suffering from inflammatory conditions, food allergies or intolerance, or other health issues led her to investigate self-publishing. She hired book publishing professionals Carol and Gary Rosenberg and published the book through Amazon’s publishing program. In 2013, when she received a call from the producer of The Better Show, a nationally syndicated talk show devoted to lifestyle topics, she realized that the book was selling much better than she had expected. “My mama would be so proud,” she says.
McCormick’s appearance on that show led to several more over the course of three seasons. All the while, she grew her fan base through social media. If she had never thought seriously about writing a book, she certainly hadn’t anticipated owning a restaurant, but her husband had been eying a little store that had come up for sale near their biodynamic farm outside of Nashville. He told her that he’d bought it just after they’d returned from a trip to Morocco in 2014.
“I was sick from food poisoning,” McCormick says. “I didn’t want a restaurant! I didn’t even know where to start because it all seemed so big—but just as big as when I was sick and was in the kitchen.”
Five years later, the Pinewood Kitchen “has a line out the door,” McCormick notes. She believes that the restaurant’s popularity has to do with its focus on community and the joy of eating while staying healthy. Her growing reputation as a chef—and her success with her self-published cookbook—led to a 2018 meeting with HCI and a book deal. The publisher was especially impressed with her sales for My Kitchen Cure (she says she’s sold 20,000 copies). My Pinewood Kitchen features more than 120 of the gut-healthy recipes that McCormick began developing in cooking school and now prepares at the restaurant—all designed to help reverse autoimmune disorders and decrease inflammation.
With her second book, McCormick hopes to reach even more people on restricted diets searching for a path back to loving food again. “Everyone is interested in food that will help them be well, get well, remain well,” she says. “I love my community. I have my kitchen full of people.”